Friday, June 15, 2012


In a spirit of itineracy, the Bishop's blog is moving to a new web page. You can now find Bishop Willimon's blogs, articles, videos, and podcasts at his own personal site:

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Sent: An Ordination Sermon

Service of Ordination, 2012
Matthew 28:5-8, 16-20

These persons before you, our newest clergy, tonight pledge their lives to one of the most unusual practices in historic Methodism – sent ministry. No congregation can hire a United Methodist pastor; our pastors are sent. Just as your call into the ministry was God’s notion before you thought of it, so in your sent ministry, your assignment in the Kingdom is God’s before it’s yours (or the Bishop’s!).

Like you, I am here because I was sent. And, when the time comes, you will leave, as I am leaving, because you have been sent. A sent ministry is a countercultural challenge. Subordination of your career, marriage, and family, and even the choice of where to sleep at night to the mission of the church, is weirdly un-American. We are a people who have been deeply indoctrinated into the godless ideology that our lives are our possessions to do with as we please, that my life is the sum of my astute choices, and that the life I’m living is my own.

There are less demanding ways to serve Jesus, surely. But forgive me for thinking few more adventuresome than a life commandeered by Jesus into sent ministry. Meeting awhile back, with a young woman attempting to help her discern what God wanted to do, whether Methodism’s sent ministry was for her or not, I concluded the conversation with, “Though I can’t say for sure that God is calling you into the ministry, I urge to you to pray really, really hard that God will.”
This is a prejudiced comment, but I think that few things sadder than an unsent life. What a joy, in good times, but especially in bad, to believe that you are where you are because you have been put there, and you are doing what you are doing because God means for this to be so. In a sense, we believe that every follower of Jesus Christ, clergy or not, is sent.

At ten, I was minding my business in Miss McDaniel’s sixth grade class, dutifully copying words off the black board, when I got the call: “Willimon, Mr. Harrelson” (the intimidating, ancient principal) “says he wants to see you. Go to his office.”

Shaking with trepidation, I trudged toward the principal’s office. Passing an open door, a classmate look out at me with pity, saying a prayer of thanksgiving that I was summoned to the Principal and not him. Ascending the gallows I went over in my mind all of the possible misunderstandings that could have led to this portentous subpoena. (I was only a distant witness to the rock through the gym window incident; in no way a perpetrator or even passive conspirator.
“Listen clearly. I do not intend to repeat myself: You, go down Tindal two blocks and turn left, go two more blocks, number fifteen. I need a message delivered. You tell Jimmy Spain’s mother if he’s not in school by this afternoon I’m reporting her to the police for truancy.”

So this wasn’t about me. It was worse. God help me. Jimmy Spain, toughest thug of all the Sixth Grade. Sixth grader who should have been in the eighth. And what’s “truancy”?

Pondering these somber thoughts, I journeyed down Tindal, bidding farewell to the safety of the schoolyard, turned left, walked two more blocks, marveling that the world actually went on about its business while we were doing time in school. The last two blocks were the toughest, descending into a not at all nice part of town, terra incognita to me, what was left of a sad neighborhood hidden behind the school. Number 15 was a small house, peeling paint, disordered yard -- just the sort of house you’d expect Jimmy Spain to be holed up in, rough looking, small but sinister. There was a big blue Buick parked in front. As I fearfully approached the walk, a man emerged, letting the front door slam, stepped off the porch, and began adjusting his tie, putting on his coat.

I approached him with, “Are you, Mr….Spain, sir.” Just then I remembered that everybody at school said that Jimmy was so mean because he didn’t have a daddy. The man looked down at me, pulled his tie on tight, and guffawed. “Mr. Spain? Haw, haw, haw.” Laughing, he left me standing there, got into his car and sped off. (I had to wait until I was in the eighth grade before someone whispered to me the dirty word for what Jimmy’s mother did for a living, and until my Boy Scout Court of Honor before I realized the man I met that day was a member of City Council.)
I stepped up on the rotten porch and knocked on the soiled screen door. My heart sank when it was opened by none other than Jimmy Spain whose steely eyes enlarged when he saw me. Before Jimmy could say anything, the door was pulled open more widely and a woman in a faded blue, terrycloth bathrobe looked down at me, over Jimmy’s shoulder.
“What do you want?” she asked in a cold, threatening tone as I marveled at the sight of a mother in a bathrobe even though it was early afternoon.

“Ur, I’m from the school. The principal sent me, to….”

“The principal! What does that old fool want?”

“Ur, he sent me to say that we, er, that is, that everybody at school misses Jimmy and wishes he were there today.”

“What?” she sneered, pulling Jimmy toward her just a bit.

“It’s like a special day today and everyone wants Jimmy there. I think that’s what he said”

Jimmy -- the feared thug who could beat up any kid at Donaldson Elementary, even ninth graders anytime he wanted, indeed had on multiple occasions -- peered out at me in….wonderment. Suddenly this tough hood, feared by all, looked small, being clutched by his mother’s protective arm, his eyes pleading, embarrassed, hanging on my every stammering word.

“Well you tell that old man it’s none of his business what I do with James. James,” she said, looking down at him, “you want to go to that old school today or not?”

Jimmy looked at me as he wordlessly nodded assent.

“Well, go get your stuff. And take that dollar off the dresser to buy lunch. I ain’t got nothing here.”

In a flash he was away and back. His mother stood at the door, and after making the unimaginable gesture of giving Jimmy a peck on the cheek, stood staring at us as we walked off the porch, down the walk, and back toward Tindal Avenue. As we walked back toward the school, we said not a word to one another. I had previously lacked the courage to speak to Jimmy the Hood, and Jimmy the Tough had never had any reason, thank the Lord, to speak to me and walking back to school that afternoon was certainly not the time to begin.

We walked up the steps to the school, took a right and wordlessly turned toward the Principal’s office. I led him in, handed him off to the Principal’s secretary who received my ward. For the first time Jimmy seemed not mean and threatening at all, but very small. As the secretary led him away, Jimmy turned and looked at me with a look of…, I don’t know, maybe regret, maybe embarrassment, rescue? But it could have also been thanks, gratitude.

That evening, when I narrated my day to my mother at supper, she said, “That is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard! Sending a young child out in the middle of the day to fetch a truant. And on that street! Mr. Harrelson ought to have his head examined. Don’t you ever allow anyone to put you in that position again. Sending a child!”

But I knew that my mother was wrong. That day was the best day of my whole time at Donaldson Elementary, preparation for the rest of my life, my first experience of a God who thinks nothing of commandeering ordinary folk and handing them outrageous assignments. That day, walking down Tindal Avenue was dress rehearsal for a summer night two decades later, when I knelt before a bishop, and he laid on hands, and pronounced the words, “You, go down Tindal two blocks and turn left, go two more blocks, number fifteen. I need a message delivered….”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reaching a New Generation

One of our Conference priorities is empowering and reaching a new generation of United Methodist Christians. A rising median age of our church indicates that we have much to do to position ourselves to reach our youth.
A huge step forward has been our appointment of Clay Farrington, a Deacon, to oversee our Conference work with youth. Clay is leading us in some exciting ways.

Clay says that Conference Youth Ministry exists for two reasons:

1.     To develop youth ministry leadership – both students and adults
2.     To host excellent student events that strengthen the local church

To those ends, we're doing a few things…

August 25: Bread & Butter: Youth Ministry Training

A jam packed one-day youth ministry training event. $20 registration fee!. Last year Duffy Robbins was our featured speaker with around 20 breakout sessions covering the gamut of student ministry. This year our featured speaker is Jason Gant from the Church of the Resurrection. The event will be at Trinity UMC in Homewood. This event is perfect for our smaller congregations who want to get back into youth ministry.


The cherished event in Gatlinburg has been reborn. This winter we had more than 500 students and leaders from throughout the North Alabama Conference present. We gleaned a huge number of names of young persons who feel called into ministry. Dr. Thomas Muhomba and the office of Ethnic Ministries partnered with Conference Youth Ministry to help reach a number of ethnic United Methodist youth.

Battle of the Bands

In an ongoing effort to develop student leadership for ministry, this year we will host a youth battle of the bands in Munger Auditorium during Annual Conference. The winning band will lead worship for Bread & Butter and a set during Encounter 2013. Clay says, “If Annual Conference gets a little boring, come on over to Munger and see the future of the North Alabama Conference.”


Clay is doing a remarkable job drawing upon the youth ministry leadership talent we already have in many of our churches. By this Annual Conference each district will have a Youth Leadership Team (DYLT) made up of 2-3 of the best youth workers in the district and 8-12 stand out student leaders (some of whom responded to the call to ministry at Encounter). The DYLT's will be given a budget from Conference. Districts have been asked to match funds. And the DYLT's will be charged with planning and implementing a youth ministry event for their district – student led as much as possible.

How well is your congregation doing in reaching and retaining youth? If you want to do more, write Clay!

Will Willimon

P.S. Join me in praying that we will have a productive and invigorating Annual Conference this week. The North Alabama Annual Conference will meet on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College May 31-June 2. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fear of God

When Jesus rose from the dead the disciples were told, “Don’t be afraid.” Those who knew Jesus best, and were in turn known best by him, knew that, while friendship with Jesus is sweet, it is also demanding, difficult, and, at times, even fearsome.

As the Bible says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Presumably, it’s not fearful to fall into the hands of a dead god, an idol who never shocks or demands anything of you, who is no more than a fake, a godlet, a mere projection of your fondest desires and silliest wishes. Out in Galilee—a dusty, drab, out-of-the-way sort of place, just like where most of us live—the disciples of Jesus were encountered by the living God. That Jesus could not only give death the slip but also be in Galilee suggests that the risen Christ could show up anywhere, anytime. And that’s scary.

Here is God, not as a high-sounding principle, a noble ideal, or a set of rock-solid beliefs. Here is God on the move, moving toward us; God defined by God, God ordering us to be on the move into the world with God. And that’s a joyful thing—but more than a little scary too. When it dawns on you that the living God is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah we didn’t expect, the Savior we didn’t want, God in motion—well, fear is a reasonable reaction.

The modern world has many ways of turning us in on ourselves, eventually to worship the dear little god within. Christianity, the religion evoked by Jesus, is a decidedly fierce means of wrenching us outward. We are not left alone peacefully to console ourselves with our sweet bromides, or to snuggle with allegedly beautiful Mother Nature, or even to close our eyes and hug humanity in general. A God whom we couldn’t have thought up on our own has turned to us, reached to us, is revealed to be someone quite other than the God we would have if God were merely a figment of our imagination—God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly. This God scared us to death but also thrilled us to life.

- From The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Jesus’ Family Values

On the cross, Jesus gets into it with his mother. “Woman, behold thy son,” he says to her. Mary, look at the child you are losing, the son that you are giving over for the sins of the world. Maternal love is that love that loves in order to give away. In Mary’s case, it was particularly so. When Jesus was born, old Simeon had predicted, “A sword will also pierce your heart.” From the first, it was not easy to be the mother of the Son of God. And now, even from the cross, Jesus is busy ripping apart families and breaking the hearts of mothers. Because he was obedient to the will of God, because Jesus did not waver from his God-ordained mission, he is a great pain to his family. “Woman, behold thy son.”

In that day, in that part of the world, there were no social attachments as rigid or determinative as that of the family. Family origin determined your whole life, your complete identity, your entire future. So one of the most countercultural, revolutionary acts of Jesus was his sustained attack upon the family.

In a culture like our own, dominated by “family values,” where we have nothing better to command our allegiance to than our own blood relatives, this is one of the good things the church does for many of us. In baptism, we are rescued from our family. Our families, as good as they are, are too narrow, too restricted. So in baptism we are adopted into a family large enough to make our lives more interesting.

“A new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you,” he said elsewhere (John 13:34). Watch closely. Jesus is forming the first church, commanding us to live as if these foreigners were our relatives. Church is where we are thrown together with a bunch of strangers and are forced to call these people with whom we have no natural affinity, nothing in common, “brother,” “sister.”

So after this moment, never again could the world say family without Jesus’ people thinking church.

On campus one evening, debating the future of our fraternities and sororities, this student says, “One reason why I love my fraternity is that it has forced me to be with a group of guys, many of whom I don’t like—guys of a different race and culture from my own—and call these losers ‘brother.’ That’s made me a better person than if I had been forced to stay with my own kind.”

“I’ve never thought of a frat as a church,” I said.

That day when they came to Jesus saying, “Your mother and your brothers are looking for you,” Jesus responded saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father, he is my brother.” In other words, Jesus is naming and claiming a new family for himself, that family made up of disciples. Now anybody who attempts to follow Jesus is one of the Family.

- From The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012

Monday, May 07, 2012

Lost and Found Loving the Lost

I am sometimes asked why so many of our Methodists have actively opposed Alabama’s controversial Immigration Law. Many of our leading educators, law enforcement personnel, and business persons have criticized Senator Beason’s law. From what I’ve seen, the motivation of many Christians in opposing the law arise from our own experience with Christ; we were aliens from the love of God, lost, then we were found.

One reason that Christians tend to move toward those on the boundaries, tend to feel responsibility for the hungry and the dispossessed is because we worship the sort of God who has moved toward us while we were famished and out on the boundaries. God looks upon us all, even us fortunate ones, as the hungry and dispossessed who need saving. This is just the sort of God who commands, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13-14). Here is a God who, for some reason known only to the Trinity, loves to work the margins inhabited by the poor, the orphaned, and the widowed; the alien and sojourner; the dead and the good as dead in the ditch. It is of the nature of this God not only to invite the poor and dispossessed but also to be poor and dispossessed, to come to the margins, thus making the marginalized the center of his realm. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it unto the least of these . . . you did it unto me” (Matt 25:40).

The story “I once was lost but now am found” is the narrative that gives us a peculiar account of lost and found, a special responsibility to seek and to save the lost. If we want to be close to Jesus—and that’s a good definition of a Christian, someone who wants to go where Jesus is—then we’ve got to go where he goes. Christians go to church in order never to forget that we were strangers and aliens out on the margins (Eph 2:19).

“You know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9). We were lost and then found. That continuing memory of the dynamic of our salvation—lost then found—gives us a special relationship to the lost, the poor, and anybody who does not know the story of a God who, at great cost, reaches far out in order to bring to close embrace.

- Adapted from The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Nonviolent Resurrected Jesus

On the night a squad of soldiers arrested him, Jesus mocked them, undaunted, asking if they were armed to the teeth to arrest him, an unarmed rabbi, as if he were a common thief. Ironically, the soldiers were not the only ones with swords. Peter, the most impetuous of Jesus’ disciples, the “rock” upon which Jesus promised to build his church, whipped out a sword and nicked off a bit of an ear—despite Jesus’ clear commandment that his disciples not carry weapons. Jesus cursed Peter: “Those who take up the sword die by the sword.” That night, Jesus once again refused to practice violence, even in self-defense.

“Those who take up the sword die by the sword” is one of the truest proverbs of Jesus. Both the victor and the vanquished must finally submit to the power of the sword. The sword we thought we were using to secure ourselves becomes our ultimate defeat.

As everybody knows, there is no way to get anything really important done without swords. That’s why we have the largest military budget of any nation in the world—to achieve security and then preemptively to spread peace and freedom everywhere. What war has been waged except from the very best of motives? To call Jesus a “Prince of Peace” is an oxymoron. A political leader who doesn’t make war when national security is threatened is no prince. And peace that is based on anything other than a balance of military power is inconceivable.

Thus, one of the most perennially confusing qualities of Jesus was his refusal of violence. “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer them your left cheek as well. Some Roman soldier commands, ‘Jew, carry my backpack a mile,’ take it one mile more. Pray for your enemies! Bless those who persecute you! Do not resist the evil one!” As if to underscore that his kingdom was “not from here,” Jesus healed the daughter of a despised Roman centurion. Was this any way to establish a new kingdom?

It would have been amazing enough if Jesus had said, “I always turn the other cheek when someone wrongs me,” or “I refuse to return violence when violence is done to me.” After all, Jesus is the Son of God, and we expect him to be nice. Unfortunately, Jesus commanded his disciples—us, those who presumed to follow him—to behave nonviolently. How do we get back at our enemies? “Love your enemies!” What are we to do when we are persecuted for following Jesus? “Pray for those who persecute you.” Thus, we have many instances in the New Testament of people violating and killing the followers of Jesus. But we have not one single instance of any of his followers defending themselves against violence, except for Peter’s inept, rebuked attempt at sword play.

This consistent, right to-the-end, to-the-point of-death nonviolence of Jesus has been that which Jesus’ followers have most attempted to modify. When it comes to violence in service of a good cause, we deeply wish Jesus had said otherwise. There are many rationales for the “just war,” or for self-defense, capital punishment, abortion, national security, or military strength. None of them, you will note, is able to make reference to Jesus or to the words or deeds of any of his first followers. You can argue that violence is sometimes effective, or justified by the circumstances, or a possible means to some better end, or practiced by every nation on the face of the earth—but you can’t drag Jesus into the argument with you. This has always been a source of annoyance and has provoked some fancy intellectual footwork on the part of those who desire to justify violence. Sorry, Jesus just won’t cooperate.

William H. Willimon
from The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Call To Action

“Competent employees crave accountability; incompetent ones flee it,” writes one of our management consultants. I’m pleased that the North Alabama Conference, through the invention and use of our Dashboard, has pioneered a renewed culture of accountability. The spirit has caught on with the bishops’ Call to Action – a plan to build in accountability for mission into the life of our connection. Of course, like any innovation, the plan has its critics, most of whom see no need for increased accountability in our church [1].

Paul Nixon has become a very helpful coach to our pastors and churches who want to improve their mission engagement. Recently Paul published a piece on how measurement and accountability, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have motivated his own ministry.

- Will Willimon

I was sixteen years old, traveling with my church youth group in the New Mexico mountains: listening to an American missionary talk about his work in Korea. Blah, blah, blah the speaker went on. Calling us to action. It meant nothing to me. But it just so happened, as I zoned out from whatever he was talking about, that the Spirit of God started chattering in my soul. I experienced that night what my faith community confirmed to be a "call to ministry." I had no idea what I was getting into, but the sense of God's calling that began that night, has guided and motivated me now for more than 33 years….a Call burning in my soul.

So I have benchmarked my work constantly (and a bit ruthlessly) across the years. I cannot imagine not doing so! No bishop or DS asked me to do so. I did it because I believed the work mattered! Because I believed God demanded it!
In my first appointment out of seminary, as associate pastor to a suburban church, I decided in my first week on the job (the last week of June) that we needed to double the number of children's church school classes from 9 to 18. This would entail quadrupling the number of teachers by August. I convened a group that walked with me through the church membership roll, discussing each name, in terms of their potential to teach. I started calling with A, and secured my last teacher somewhere in the W's in early August. That year our church school attendance rose from 370 to over 500….
A few years later I was appointed to a church that was consistently taking in 200 new members a year. But I wanted 300. So I began to calculate, and to work a series of strategies that would kick that number over 300 within a couple years.
Some would say I was driven. Yeah, maybe... But I always took my day off, came home for dinner, played with my kid, and so forth. I just believed this work was really important - and so I kept careful score about key metrics that seemed connected to fulfillment of the mission. I constantly re-arranged my time to make sure that the most strategic things happened.

I now coach pastors. And I cannot count how many times in the past month I have gently but directly asked my pastors "How are you going to know you are making progress in the next six months? How will you know that you are on track in your mission?" Ultimately, they set benchmarks for themselves and I help them reach those goals. It is a ministry of accountability and encouragement. I believe in accountability.

I have learned over the years that accountability has very little to do with motivation, and that it rarely ever motivates a person to work harder. Pastors work hard because they are passionate about their work. That passion is almost always connected to their experience of God's call. It grows from within their soul.

My denomination is moving into a season of renewed accountability. Long past due! Some of our bishops now want a report card from their pastors every week. Maybe overkill, but a little accountability will not hurt The United Methodist Church.

What might hurt is the disappointment five years from now…, if we assume that accountability will produce the motivation now lacking. The motivation that produced the Book of Acts came from a place higher than the Council of Bishops.

If the United Methodist Call to Action yields anything, it may be because the bishops themselves take action to remove ineffective pastors from vital places of service when those persons persistently fail to grow their churches or meet reasonable benchmarks in changing community situations. If the Call to Action yields anything, it could be because conference leaders do what it takes to help their conferences recruit women and men passionate and competent for the work of growing the church….

To my friends in the episcopacy, thank you for caring about our church enough to call us to action - but now the church looks to you for action. When we see some $20,000 salary cuts begin to show up across the connection in response to pastoral ineffectiveness, that is when we will know you all were serious.

Hold us accountable!

Paul Nixon
The Epicenter Group

[1] For example, see the compromised

Monday, April 16, 2012

Following Jesus After Easter

I am still haunted by a long conversation I had with a man who was a member of one of my early congregations. He told me that one evening, returning from a night of poker with pals, he had a stunning vision of the presence of the risen Christ. Christ appeared to him undeniably, vividly.

Yet though this event shook him and stirred him deeply, in ten years he had never told anyone about it before he told me, his pastor. I pressed him on his silence. Was he embarrassed? Was he fearful that others would mock him or fail to believe that this had happened to him?

“No,” he explained, “the reason why I told no one was I was too afraid that it was true. And if it’s true that Jesus was really real, that he had come personally to me, what then? I’d have to change my whole life. I’d have to become some kind of radical or something. And I love my wife and family and was scared I’d have to change, to be somebody else, and destroy my family, if the vision was real.”

That conversation reminded me that there are all sorts of reasons for disbelieving the resurrection of crucified Jesus, reasons that have nothing to do with our being modern, scientific, critical people.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that a major reason for disbelieving in the truth of the resurrection is that, if the resurrection is true, then we cannot live as we previously have lived.  We must change or be out of step with the way the world really is.  If the world is not in the grip of death and death-dealers, how then shall we live?

William H. Willimon
-  from The Best of Will Willimon, (Abingdon Press, 2012)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


A student, asked to summarize the gospel in a few words, responded: in the Bible, it gets dark, then it gets very, very dark, then Jesus shows up. I’d add to this affirmation, Jesus doesn’t just show up; he shows up for us.

As the psalmist declared:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence? If ascend to heaven, you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Ps 139:7-8)

I was visiting a man as he lay dying, his death only a couple of days away. I asked him there at the end what he was feeling. Was he fearful?

“Fear? No,” he responded, “I’m not fearful because of my faith in Jesus.”
“We all have hope that our future is in God’s hands,” I said, somewhat piously.
“Well, I’m not hopeful because of what I believe about the future,” he corrected me, “I’m hopeful because of what I’ve experienced in the past.”

I asked him to say more.

“I look back over my life, all the mistakes I’ve made, all the times I’ve turned away from Jesus, gone my own way, strayed, and got lost. And time and again, he found a way to get to me, showed up and got me, looked for me when I wasn’t looking for him. I don’t think he’ll let something like my dying defeat his love for me.”

There was a man who understood Easter.

To the poor, struggling Corinthians, failing at being the church, backsliding, wandering, split apart, faithless, scandalously immoral, Paul preaches Easter. He reminds them that they are here, ekklesia, gathered and summoned by the return of the risen Christ. Earlier, God declared, “I will be their God and they will be my people.” That’s the story that, by the sheer grace of God, continues. That’s what this risen Savior does. He comes back—again and again—to the very ones (I’m talking about us!) who so betray and disappoint him. He appears to us, seeks us, finds, grabs us, embraces, holds on to us, commissions us to do his work. In returning to his disciples, the risen Christ makes each of us agents of Easter. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says, “so I send you” (John 20:21).

Will Willimon 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Father, Forgive

Don’t you find it curious that the first word, the very first word that Jesus speaks in agony on the cross, is “Father, forgive”? Such blood, violence, injustice, crushed bone, and ripped sinew, the hands nailed to the wood. With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, and accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.” Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. We though the meant that as a metaphor. (I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve uttered a really good prayer for the souls of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.) On the cross, Jesus dares to pray for his worst enemies, the main foes of his good news, us.

How curious of Jesus to unite ignorance and forgiveness. I usually think of ignorance as the enemy of forgiveness. I say, “Forgiveness is fine—as long as the perpetrator first knows and then admits that what he did was wrong.” First, sorrowful, knowledgeable repentance, then secondary, gracious forgiveness. Right?

Yet here, from the cross, is preemptive forgiveness. We begin with forgiveness. Jesus’ first word is forgiveness. It’s as if, when God the Father began creating the world, the first word was not “Let there be light” but rather “Let there be forgiveness.” There will be no new world, no order out of chaos, no life from death, no new liaison between us and God without forgiveness first. Forgiveness is the first step, the bridge toward us that only God can build. The first word into our darkness is, “Father, forgive.”

“Father, forgive,” must always be the first word between us and God, because of our sin and because of God’s eternal quest to have us. Forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out to us in love, beat God away. Here on the cross, God the Father had two possibilities, the way I see it. One, God could abandon us. God could have said, “All right, that’s enough. I did everything possible to reach toward them, embrace them, save them, bring them toward myself, but when they stooped to killing my Son, that’s it.” God could have abandoned us at this moment. Or, two, God the Father could have abandoned God the Son, handed him over into our sinful hands. God could have left the Son to hang there as the hapless, helpless victim of our evil.

But these were never real options for God if God were to continue to be the God who is revealed to us in Scripture. God the Father cannot be separated from God the Son. God the Father stays with the Son and in the suffering and horror gets us in the bargain. God the Father stays with us and gets a crucified Son. The unity of the Trinity is maintained—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and in so doing, the Father and the Holy Spirit take on the suffering of the Son. The Father of course could not have abandoned the Son without abandoning who the Father really is. So the Father maintains the life of the Trinity by uniting with us through massive forgiveness, for there is no way for God the Father and God the Holy Spirit to be with God the Son, the Incarnate Word, without being with us murderers of God.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Cross: The Measure of Love

Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I’m sharing some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.

To tell the truth, Lord Jesus, we weren’t that close to your cross when the soldiers nailed you to the wood and hoisted you up over Golgotha. But from where we were standing, at a safe distance, it looked to us like your arms were extended just about as far as they could go. It made us very uncomfortable to see your arms stretched out so very wide.

Yet you tended to do that, even before you got your cross. Seeing you hanging there, arms in such unnatural embrace, we recalled how troublesome was your reach throughout your ministry, a real pain. First the dirty, common fisherfolk whom you called to abandon their families and follow you, then the tax collectors, the whores, the lepers, the stumbling blind and crawling lame, cruel Roman soldiers, bleeding women, clergy, even corpses, all responding to your touch, all caught within your grasp. A Savior can’t reach that far and not expect to be punished for it. And on Friday, God knows you paid dearly for your barrier-breaking, boundary-bursting reach.

You overreached.

How wide is your reach? See, even now, the nails through your hands cannot constrain you. You stoop, strain, bend, and grab, reaching down all the way to hell itself, determined to gather, to reap, to have all us sinners, dead or alive, no matter what the sin, all in your clutch, all in your embrace.

We gather here, at the foot of your cross as those who have been grabbed, got hold of, by a Lord whose reach knows no bounds. So this day, this fateful Friday, we warn those not yet reached—Hitler, Stalin, the woman sitting next to us today on the bus, the man who yesterday cut us off in traffic and grinned about it, the one who so wronged me that I hate him and wish he were not, the Palestinian who strapped the plastic explosive to herself and pulled the cord hoping to take some Jewish children with her—beware. Take it from us sinners: His reach is without bounds, His embrace wide, determined and irresistible. He will have you, if He has to die trying. Amen.

Will Willimon

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Cross: Our Way to God

I’m honored that Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I’m sharing some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.

Despite our earnest efforts, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. So what did God do? In an amazing act of condescension, on Good Friday, God climbed down to us, became one with us. The story of divine condescension begins on Christmas and ends on Good Friday. We thought, if there is to be business between us and God, we must somehow get up to God. Then God came down, down to the level of the cross, all the way down to the depths of hell. He who knew not sin took on our sin so that we might be free of it. God still stoops, in your life and mine, condescends.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” he asked his disciples, before his way up Golgotha. Our answer is an obvious, “No!” His cup is not only the cup of crucifixion and death, it is the bloody, bloody cup that one must drink if one is going to get mixed up in us. Any God who would wander into the human condition, any God who has this thirst to pursue us, had better not be too put off by pain, for that’s the way we tend to treat our saviors. Any God who tries to love us had better be ready to die for it.

Earlier in this very same gospel, it was said, “The Word, the eternal Logos of God, became flesh and moved in with us, and we beheld his glory” (AP). Now the Word, the Christ of God, sees where so reckless a move ends: on a cross. “I thirst, I yearn to feast with you,” he says, “and behold, if you dare, where it gets me.”

When I was giving some lectures at a seminary in Sweden some years ago, a seminarian asked, “Do you really think Jesus Christ is the only way for us to get to God?”

And I thoughtfully replied, “I’ll just say this, if you were born in South Carolina, and living in America, yes. There really is no way for somebody like me to get to God, other than a Savior who doesn’t mind a little blood and gore, a bit of suffering and grizzly shock and awe, in order to get to me. A nice, balanced Savior couldn’t do much for a guy like me. I need a fanatic like Jesus. For we have demonstrated that we are an awfully, fanatically cruel and bloody people when our security is threatened. We have this history of murdering our saviors. So I just can’t imagine any other way to God except Jesus.”

Will Willimon

Sounds of Sumatanga is April 21, and it’s a great day to connect with friends from United Methodist Churches all over the Conference. The day will be filled with music and food, activities for kids and more for just a $5 admission. I hope you’re planning to support Camp Sumatanga by attending. Details are available at .

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Cross and Ministry

Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon, edited by my friend Dr. Robert Ratcliff. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I thought I would share some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.

I was having a difficult time in my previous congregation. A stormy board meeting was followed by a poorly received sermon, which was then succeeded by a none-too-pleasant public confrontation with the chair of the church trustees. What had I done to so badly manage the congregation? I sat in my office, going over the events of the past week, attempting to take appropriate responsibility for the administrative mess I was in. Could I have been more discreet? Why had I felt the need to bring things to a head now? Had I abused the pulpit in last Sunday’s sermon?

Then I returned to my preparation for next Sunday’s sermon. Year B of the Common Lectionary, Mark. Another story of Jesus’ teaching and healing. Another story of rejection. Then it hit me. Why was I so surprised that our congregation was full of conflict? Was the conflict a sign of my failure to skillfully manage congregational differences, or my skillful pastoral telling of the truth? I heard Mark ask, “What’s the problem? You think that you are a better preacher than Jesus?”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

At that moment I recalled that just about 99 percent of Mark’s Gospel encompasses the preparation to crucify Jesus, Jesus’ crucifixion, or the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion. The cross, it appears, is not optional equipment for a faithful ministry. The cross, the self-giving, emptying of God in the crucified Jesus—God’s great victory over sin and death through divine suffering—is the primary ethical trajectory of the New Testament.

Will Willimon

Monday, February 27, 2012


I’m honored that Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I thought I would share some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.

Really now, Lord Jesus, is our sin so serious as to necessitate the sort of ugly drama we are forced to behold this day? Why should the noon sky turn toward midnight and the earth heave and the heavens be rent for our mere peccadilloes? To be sure, we’ve made our mistakes. Things didn’t turn out as we intended. There were unforeseen complications, factors beyond our control. But we meant well. We didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. We’re only human, and is that so wrong?

Really now, Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we may not be the very best people who ever lived, but surely we are not the worst. Others have committed more serious wrong. Ought we to be held responsible for the ignorance of our grandparents? They, like we, were doing the best they could, within the parameters of their time and place. We've always been forced to work with limited information. There’s always been a huge gap between our intentions and our results.

Please, Lord Jesus, die for someone else, someone whose sin is more spectacular, more deserving of such supreme sacrifice. We don’t want the responsibility. Really, Lord, is our unrighteousness so very serious? Are we such sinners that you should need to die for us?

Really, if you look at the larger picture, our sin, at least my sin, is so inconsequential. You are making too big a deal out of such meager rebellion. We don’t want your blood on our hands.
We don’t want our lives in any way to bear the burden of your death. Really. Amen.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Raising Up a New Generation of Leaders

One of our church's great challenges is finding qualified pastoral leaders for our churches in the future. As you know, United Methodism historically has some of the highest educaitonal and character standards for our new pastors of any church. Our rigorous educaitonal requirements are expensive to maintain. But we think our congregations are worth it.

You may also know that we have the lowest percentage of young clergy (only about 4.5% under 35) of at any time in our history. Each year, when I ordain new clergy, I ordain close to a million dollars in educational debt along with them -- money they have had to borrow to prepare for our ministry. It grieves me that most of our precious conference resources go into financing yesterday's church -- clergy pensions for older clergy, subsidies for maintaining congregations and institutions that trived in the past but not now. Ought we be surprised that we have trouble obtaining a future for our church when so much is expended on our past?

Patsy and I have therefore established clergy scholarship funds at two of our seminaries (Emory and Duke) and I have pled for more assistance for our newest clergy. I am therefore so excited about a recent gift that we received from two dedicated laypeople, Jim and Betty Tucker, who are members of Central UMC in Decatur. A generous series of gifts by the Tuckers will enable grants to be made to seminarians who are serving in the Northwest District. It will provide aid to students with expenses incurred while going to seminary. Jim Tucker has seen first hand how even generous scholarships are not enough for seminarians, particularly those who are serving student appointments while in seminary. Mike Stonbraker, Jim's District Superintendent, has been a great leader in cultivating new, young leadership for our church. (Mike also wants me to tell you that Jim is a Marine, Mike forbidding me to say "retired Marine.")

Jim Tucker has been a successful business person in Decatur and is not only a loyal member of Central, but is also grateful for the high quaility pastoral leadership who has served Central over the years. He knows that fine pastoral leaders like Gary Formby, his current pastor, required quality seminary training. We are so grateful to Betty and Jim for leading the way with their generous gift.

God means for us to have a bright and vital future, I'm sure of that. But we must do our part. As I've often said, with Jesus Christ, we have more tomorrows than yesterdays, for we serve a living, resurrected God who leads us into the future. Let's go with him!

Will Willimon

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A New World, and Its Detractors

One of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed, in the Council of Bishops, is the bishops’ “Call to Action.” The bishops have heard the plea of the UMC for leadership to do throughout our connection that which has already been done in all of our vital congregations – simplify and focus our structure and realign our resources, so that more emphasis is placed upon mission and upon fruit.

Our Council President, Bishop Greg Palmer (a student of mine at Duke and someone who spoke at our SBC21 meeting last year) states what we hope to achieve through these measures: “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” 

All of the proposals – a long overdue restructuring of general boards and agencies, shared accountability for ministry by sharing of results from the Conferences (using the North Alabama Dashboard as the model!), a set-aside bishop to coordinate the work of the bishops, and cost cutting measures – have one goal: vital congregations.

I wondered if the Bishops’ proposals went far enough, if were being appropriately rigorous in our focus on mission, but when I read fellow South Carolinian, Tim McClendon’s attack on the bishops’ plans, I realized that we were on the right track.[1] Tim dismisses our dreams as a mere “business model” that “is a smoke screen to hand more power over to the Council of Bishops,” praising our church as organized like the Federal Government![2] Our church is now imperiled, says Tim, by an insidious power grab by the bishops. We’re afflicted with a power-hungry episcopacy who wants a set-aside bishop, a “quasi-pope,” says Tim. 

Tim has no proposals for church revitalization other than to require bishops to work more in their annual conferences (failing to note that the Discipline makes us superintendents of the whole church). He shouts that bishops ought “to be set-aside in their annual conferences!” saying, “We all know how little time bishops actually spend in their annual Conferences.”

I’m sorry that Tim thinks his conference has an absentee bishop, but I don’t think anybody would say that in North Alabama. Tim’s prescription for better leadership by the bishops is for us to spend more time staying in the homes of our people and “making personal connections” -- which Tim thinks is the chief requirement for effective leadership.

Note that Tim has little concern for the whole point of the Call to Action: vital congregations. His unfocused, rather predictable plea for the status quo, his unconcern that most of our congregations are in decline, and his disinterest in accountability for fruitfulness is the same sort of resistance we encountered a few years ago in North Alabama. Thank goodness that our conference had people who, unlike Tim, resonated with the bishops’ call to “Make Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World,” or we wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I’m so thankful that when I said that we could do better, that we were going to remove impediments to growth and fidelity, no one trembled in fear at a power-grabbing bishop!

In my eight years as bishop, I’ve heard no one anywhere complain, “Bishops are too powerful.” The complaints, from those who care about our church’s future is, “Bishops have got to step up and lead,” and “Someone must take responsibility for giving our church a different future than the one to which we are doomed through our present way of doing business.”

I am confident that there enough frustrated United Methodists -- who have languished at unproductive board meetings, who have watched helplessly as one congregation after another quietly slips into death, have prayed that someone would cast a vision and move forward – that the Call to Action and its proposals by the bishops will be gratefully received by General Conference. If we listen to those who ignore our plight and protect their status quo, we deserve the bleak future we’ll get.

Of course, I might think like Tim if I had not been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to be in ministry in North Alabama. I urge Tim to see first hand what a conference looks like that takes more seriously Jesus’ mandate to make disciples than it attempts to plod along doing ministry as usual. There’s a reason why our conference was at the top in the percentage of Vital Congregations – the Holy Spirit has helped us to let go of some old ways of doing things, to hold ourselves rigorously, publicly accountable for the actual results of our ministry, and to focus our financial resources on vital congregations rather than on defense of unproductive structures, pastors, and congregations.

We’ve got a long way to go, but at least we are on the way. All that the Council of Bishops asks of the church is permission to go forward, to bless the general church with some of the practices and values that we have pioneered in North Alabama, and to give us what we need to be faithful to your call for us to lead the church.  

Will Willimon  

 [1] “Restructuring proposal is bad medicine for UMC,” Tim McClendon, United Methodist Reporter, Nov 8, 2011.
 [2] “Our polity is based on the separation of powers,” an a-theological view of our polity indeed

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Our Spanish Speaking Churches in the Aftermath of HB56

The fastest growing ethnic group in United Methodism are Spanish-speaking Methodists. North Alabama Methodists have invested huge resources in establishing nearly a dozen new congregations in the past few years. These new churches have become spiritual dynamos of our conference, leading our conference in baptisms and professions of faith – until HB56, our state’s notorious immigration law.

Though almost all of our fledgling United Methodist Christians were documented, in just two months we saw our congregations decimated and all of our prayerful work destroyed. Not only did nearly all Spanish-speaking Methodists have an undocumented person in their home or nearby but also the law -- designed (in the words of one of its authors) to tell undocumented people to get out of Alabama -- created a climate of fear.

In a discussion between me and Sen. Scott Beason on the ultra-conservative “Laura Ingraham Show,” even Ms. Ingraham called this law a heinous attack upon the free exercise of religion, and an “embarrassment,” and chided Beason. (Fortunately, District Judge Blackburn struck down the part of the law that caused so many in the church immediate concern.)

The Reverend Dr. Thomas Muhomba (himself a thoroughly documented immigrant to our country, along with six other leading North Alabama pastors), who heads our ethnic ministries, has given us a frightening report of the effects of HB56. Rev. Bart Tau tells us that on the first of September, there was a mass exodus of children out of schools in his area. While many of the children were citizens, their parents were not. One family, whose daughter is an honor student at a Methodist college in Florida, cannot come home because she is undocumented and fears traveling in Alabama. Bart says that many parents have left Alabama fearing deportation that would require them to abandon their children, making them wards of the state.

Rev. Tau says, “Our churches need to remind our Hispanic brothers and sisters of our Lord’s love and care for them as His children in this very scary time. For those that decide they must leave, we can help them to deal with the details of a move and transition. We can pick them up and bring them to church, so they don’t have to drive and risk arrest. We can help them afford legal counsel when they need it, and we can help them by taking care of their kids if they are detained. A simple Power of Attorney can give a legal resident or citizen the ability to manage the affairs of a person who is separated from their family and their possessions. We need to show our love and support by standing beside our Latino families in a very tangible way.”

At Riverchase, an established congregation that has led the way in birthing and partnering with an Hispanic congregation, Rev. Fernando Del Castillo (who despite our expensive legal efforts was deported a few years ago, my first experience with difficult immigration laws) states that HB56 fostered anxiety, fear, and panic among his people . “Four of our families have already moved to different states, leaving behind businesses, jobs, houses, and dreams.”

In Huntsville at Iglesia de la Communidad, Rev. Roblero Macedonio’s church reports that his congregation lost ten families who had to move to other states. Macedonio says that though his congregation has all but disappeared, he vows to “continue preaching the word and growing more disciples for the transformation of the world.”

By the way, nearly everyone I spoke to asked us to pray for the law enforcement officials who have been forced by our government to attempt to enforce the law. They are hopeful that the lawmakers will listen to the pleas of the business groups, school leaders, and police and sheriffs who have pled for revisions in the law.

And that’s just what we pray for too. Our Governor and legislators have admitted that the law needs change and they have promised that they would make changes in the law this legislative season that begins this week. We fully understand that when the law was devised, not all of them could know the nefarious implications of the law upon our businesses and schools.

I hope that by pointing to the effect of this law upon our churches, the lawmakers will consider the well-being of all of our people, particularly those who are attempting to practice the Christian faith in Alabama.

Will Willimon

Monday, February 06, 2012

Highest Rate of Connectional Giving in Two Decades

I am happy to report to the North Alabama Conference that we received 82.86% of the 2011 Conference budget through connectional giving this past year. This is our highest collection rate over the last 19 years (from 1993 – 2011)! Personally I am thrilled that my last year as bishop I got to witness this wonderful result. This rate of giving is particularly noteworthy considering our huge response to the Easter week storms of 2011. (By my conservative estimate, our churches gave about two million dollars in relief for victims of the storms, which makes our nearly 83% participation remarkable.)

Congratulations to the Southeast District for the highest collection rate of 89.54%. The Northwest District finished with 89.39% and the Northeast District finished with 88.07%. (These were three of the most storm-devastated districts.) The vast majority our congregations participate fully in Connectional Giving, a testimony to their pastoral leadership and our attempts to contain Conference costs, particularly administrative costs.

Connectional giving accounts for only about 11% of a congregation’s income. If fewer than twenty of our larger churches that failed to participate in mission giving had participated, we would have received nearly a million dollars more. Any church that does not participate in connectional giving at 100% invariably shows a deficit in its spiritual life and clerical leadership. We will continue to work with these pastors and churches in the coming year, reminding them of the mandate under which we work – a vital church participates in Christ’s mission in the world.

A pastor’s leadership is the key to connectional giving, so as I mention our faithful congregations, I want to note their faithful pastors. Peter Hawker and Minnie Stovall are leading a dramatic turnaround at Anniston First, putting them at 100% for the first time in years.

Some of our churches that were heavily damaged by the storms like Canaan (Ted Bryson), Lakeview (John Purifoy), Hackleburg (George Gravitte) were, despite their loss, full participants in connectional giving!

There are many pastors and churches who deserve to be recognized but I’ll highlight a few of the many that made remarkable progress over previous years’ giving: Wesley Memorial (Sherry Harris), Edgemont (Chris Montgomery), Morgan (Eddie Bolen), Christ (Paul Lawler), St. James (James Fields), Camp Branch (Frankie Jones), Hoover First (Rachael Gonia), Cullman First (Mitchell Williams), and Spring Hill (Clauzell Williams).

Obviously, there were many more who deserve accolades for this great year in connectional giving. Alabama, according to surveys, has some of the most generous givers in the nation. We have been determined to improve our Conference’s rate of participation in connectional giving and, with the hard work of our pastors and churches, we have!

William H. Willimon